SALEM — Legislative branch staff are putting together a competitive bid for an independent analysis of the Legislature’s personnel policies in the wake of allegations of harassment in the Oregon Capitol.
Reports of unwanted touching by two male lawmakers have surfaced as more people nationally have been coming forward about their experiences with sexual harassment and assault.
Legislative counsel is preparing the bid for the outside review, according to the office of Employee Services, the Legislature’s human resources arm.
Legislative counsel could not be reached for comment to answer questions about the scope, cost and timeline of the review Wednesday.
The Legislature’s current personnel rules lay out procedures for reporting and responding to harassment both informally and formally.
Multiple informal complaints of unwanted touching against State Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, are being investigated by legislative counsel and the Legislature’s human resources department.
It’s not clear when the results of that inquiry may come to light.
The intent of the informal complaint process is to allow members or employees of the legislative branch to have a confidential way to report harassment and get the behavior to stop.
By contrast, formal complaints against legislators, as outlined in the rules, require an outside investigation. The results are presented to a legislative committee on conduct.
That committee can recommend the reprimand, censure, or expulsion of the member, and the action requires a two-thirds vote of the chamber in question. It’s an exceedingly rare process.
But while it’s rare for formal complaints to be lodged with the Legislature regarding harassment, that doesn’t necessarily mean harassment itself is uncommon.
Since the allegations against Kruse, several female lobbyists and legislators have spoken publicly about their experiences with harassment and sexism.
Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that roughly 75 percent of people who experienced workplace harassment never discussed the harassing conduct with a supervisor, manager or union representative.
“Employees who experience harassment fail to report the harassing behavior or file a complaint because they fear disbelief of their claim, blame or social or professional retaliation,” a June 2016 report, prepared by a special task force on workplace harassment, states.
The two lawmakers accused of harassment have reportedly responded to informal allegations differently.
Reports of “inappropriate humor” and “inappropriate touching” in recent years against State Rep. David Gomberg, D-Central Coast, were made to House leadership, who resolved the issue confidentially, Gomberg said in a constituent newsletter Sunday.
Gomberg says he changed his behavior when it was brought to his attention.
No complaint was filed in that instance, although legislative counsel was “informally consulted,” according to a spokesman for the House Democrats.
But after the allegations against Kruse were first reported to legislative counsel in March 2016, and he was directed to stop touching women at work, he reportedly did not.
Kruse, who has denied inappropriate contact in previous interviews with the Roseburg News-Review and The Oregonian, has not responded to multiple requests for comment from the EO/Pamplin Capital Bureau.
In both cases, the complaints were of an informal nature, although the Kruse case involved a report to both legislative counsel and employee services.
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, took further measures when he learned that the unwanted touching had reportedly not stopped, and that Kruse continued to smoke in his legislative office.
Courtney stripped Kruse of his committee assignments and the door to his office Oct. 20.
Akin Blitz, a Portland attorney who has trained public sector organizations on harassment laws and policies, says allegations of harassment should be investigated “promptly, thoroughly and impartially,” according to a copy of a recent presentation he provided to the EO/Pamplin Capital Bureau.
House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, said Tuesday that she didn’t think the Legislature could adopt a turnkey policy, in part because representatives and senators are independently elected.
“I think we’re a unique organization,” Williamson said, “And so we would not be able to pick up some other organization’s sexual harassment policy and drop it into our personnel rules and it would make sense, just because of who we have in the building, how we all work together, the fact that we’re independently elected officials.”
Legislators are not at-will employees of the Legislature — they are elected solely by their constituents.
According to the Oregon Secretary of State’s office, constituents of a state senator or representative can petition for a recall election.
Otherwise, elected state representatives and senators do not face termination unless a formal complaint is made, an investigation is completed and their chamber decides to expel them.
The United States Congress has a similar procedure when it comes to allegations of misconduct. While it’s uncommon, members of Congress have been expelled, and others have resigned in lieu of expulsion.
U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood, an Oregon Republican, is a notable example of the latter: he resigned in 1995 after a Senate Committee on Ethics recommended his expulsion in the aftermath of multiple allegations that he’d made unwanted sexual advances toward women.